Design Inspiration in the Attic: The Cooper Hewitt and the City Reliquary.

Maira Kalman room at Cooper Hewitt Design Museum

Two design inspiration visits over the holidays – to the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum for “good” design and to City Reliquary for the full-of-soul vernacular design of New York City.  Surely I couldn’t be mentioning those in the same breath.  Perhaps it’s the Smithsonian as the Nation’s Attic that sparked the connection.

The Cooper Hewitt is in a wonderfully re-re restored grand Fifth Avenue mansion. It is a serious design museum – gilded with interactive walls and touch screens and electronic pens.  It’s there to teach you what design is and how to think about it. There is the user-as-arbiter section (which by the way features the wonderful Harry’s razor that I use every day – designed by New York’s Prime Studio.)  And a lovely room of Maira Kalman-curated miscellanea enlivened with her quirky handwritten comments (pictured above).

I particularly liked the collections of things that are red, things that are defined by line, things that look like artichokes and so on.  These objects were designed in very different times and places but have an element in common that entitles them to sit together here.  This is curation that makes you look and think and connect.

The City Reliquary

The City Reliquary  is in a tiny storefront in Brooklyn hard by the elevated Brooklyn Queens Expressway.  It is chock a block with bits of old New York.  The sign for the late Second Avenue Deli is there (designed by the late Mark Shap). Bits of old subway cars and fragments of buildings – a vast collection of memorabilia from Worlds Fairs, a tribute to Little Egypt whose amazing rotating hips introduced Americans to the belly dance. All things Jackie Robinson. Artifacts from a street corner newsstand.

There’s an incredible wealth of stuff crammed into this little space. This is not about teaching design – but there is so much design inspiration here. This is the vernacular design of New York – influenced from cultures in the melting pot.  I think I’d go back here before I return to Cooper Hewitt, wonderful though it is.  And did I mention Maazel Tough, a killer portrait show of Jewish gangsters: Meyer Lansky, Arnold Rothstein, Dutch Schultz and the Murder Inc crowd.

So here is the Second Avenue Deli as it was, showing the signage that is now in City Reliquary – and below it, the same building today.  You can see a whole bunch of such comparisons at

2nd Avenue Deli – ten years on